Doug Gurian-Sherman posts an excellent article on his blog The Equation about the promise agroecology holds to fundamentally transform agriculture to make it more resilient to climate change, respond to new pests, conserve scarce resources like water and phosphorus, reduce environmental impacts, and establish food sovereignty.
…we must make a serious effort to develop ecologically-sound agriculture systems that address the huge shortcomings of industrial monoculture agriculture. And, like industrial ag, it must be highly productive. Agroecology provides the principles and practices to accomplish this, and breeding and agroecology can work together. Research on soybean aphid resistance breeding and the value of natural aphid enemies in diverse landscapes provides a good example of how this can work, and how the big ag companies are sabotaging this kind of smart, scientifically sophisticated agriculture. Research shows that where farms are situated near uncultivated areas, natural enemies that consume soybean aphids, like ladybird beetles (AKA ladybugs), reduce the need for insecticides by about 25 to 43 percent, based on 2005 and 2006 data, compared to areas where monoculture is extensive and uncultivated areas scarce. If soybeans resistant to aphids are deployed where good agroecological principles are used—e.g., farms embedded in uncultivated areas, using cover crops, long crop rotations, and reduced pesticides—the resulting reduced number of aphids may improve soybean yield more than crop genes alone. It also reduces the possibility that the aphids will develop resistance to the protective soybean genes. As a bonus, insecticides would not generally be needed. Insecticides from Monsanto and Friends Make Things Worse Instead of promoting smarter farming, the big seed and pesticide companies like Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer and Syngenta make matters worse by supporting the current industrial monoculture system, which reduces the number of natural pest enemies. The companies treat the large majority of corn seed, and most soybean seed, with pesticides, including neonicotinoid insecticides. I have previously discussed how these seed treatments are likely contributing to the loss of bees–critical for food production–birds, and natural pest enemies. Research published last year provided data that suggests that neonicotinoid seed treatment of soybean harms the very natural enemies that help keep soybean aphid under control! On top of that, as with neonic-treated corn seed, this and other research strongly suggests that soybean seed treatment does not meaningfully control soybean aphid or other important soybean pests, or improve yield. It’s a great deal for the seed companies, not so good for the environment, farmers, or anyone else. The Need for More Public Crop Varieties And Agroecology In the end, we need public policies that encourage agroecology and public sector crop breeding, which makes up a small fraction of public spending on agriculture. The USDA’s National Institute for Food and Agriculture (NIFA) provides agriculture research grants, and needs to put in place a dedicated program to develop public crop varieties to complement agrocologically-sound farming systems. Many programs that support sustainable farming, begun under the last several farm bills, are currently under threat from a dysfunctional congress. A new Farm Bill needs to be passed that builds the Conservation Stewardship Program (CSP)–which supports many agroecological practices by partnering with farmers–and is slashed in the House version of the Farm Bill. Programs stranded without funding by the current Farm Bill impasse, like the Organic Research and Education Program (OREI) need to be bolstered. UCS and other organizations we collaborate with are working to improve the current situation. You can help by contacting your congressperson or senator, or the USDA, and tell them to support breeding and agroecology research, and pass a new Farm Bill that supports ecologically-based farming.